Ageing is an inevitable and integral part of everyone’s lifecycle, together with birth, childhood, adolescence and adulthood. However, it does not always begin at the same time for everyone. From the biological point of view, some organs begin to lose functionality before others. Understanding what ageing means is one of the major challenges for medicine this century. This is because people are living increasingly longer lives, and would like to do so in the best possible physical, psychological and social conditions. The progressive extension of life expectancy over the 20th Century was driven by multiple factors, ranging from scientific progress, improved diet and hygiene, right through to controlling infections, driving down the rate of workplace accidents, and much more.
While there is still a long way to go, recent studies are beginning to examine the possibility of ageing being reversed, and to exert greater control over ageing in future. In other words, the onset of senescence, which seems to start as a cellular response to accumulated damage suffered by the organism over time, could be attenuated by controlling the replication process for senescent cells that cause certain pathologies related with cardiovascular problems or cancer.
The importance of measuring telomeres
Several studies published in the last decade have found evidence that telomeres are critically important to the cell ageing process, and are fundamentally responsible for the onset of neurodegenerative, cardiac and oncological conditions. Which is why more and more scientists and healthcare professionals are calling for telomere measuring tests to be included in regular examinations of patients and healthy individuals alike. These represent a biomarker to help stratify the risk of numerous pathologies. They also want to see regular monitoring of each individual’s ageing process.
At present, the only technology available to measure the number and percentage of critically short telomeres, as well as average and complete records of telomere length distribution, is known as q-FISH. This technology is able to individually measure telomeres in cell nuclei at the chromosomal level. However, as yet it is only marketed by one sole laboratory anywhere in the world, via its own patents, going by the name of TAT® (Telomere Analysis Technology®).
Tips for better ageing
According to several studies, those born now will live for more than 100 years on average. As a result, people will have to learn how to age appropriately in order to avoid health problems, mainly during their adult lives. The best approach is to adopt certain guidelines as early as possible, as these have been scientifically proven to maintain and protect telomeres:
- Restrict calorific intake. One of the seven deadly sins is greed, and based on what experts are demonstrating, this maxim seems truer than ever. Eating moderately, while never slipping into malnutrition, not only makes for longer lives, as has been observed in studies with primates, flies and mice, but also reduces mortality and disease linked to ageing. Furthermore, two studies have concluded that weight loss in obese adults drives telomere lengthening, confirming that excessive adiposity accelerates the ageing process.
- Healthy lifestyles. According to the well-known “Danish Twin” study, just 10% of an individual’s longevity is dictated by genes, while 90% is determined by lifestyle, with key elements being stress management, physical exercise and nutrition. A study among more than 6,000 individuals demonstrated that behaviors based on movement are very significant to avoiding critically short telomeres. On the other hand, alcohol and smoking not only undermine an individual’s general health, they also have a considerable impact on telomere wear, and therefore undermine healthy ageing. For example, a person who regularly consumes high alcohol content drinks has a telomere length 50% shorter than those who drink only on occasion.
- The importance of diet. Certain nutrients have been proven to have a positive influence on telomere length. Among these are antioxidants, as biological and physiological ageing is affected by the rate at which free radicals are produced throughout the body, meaning oxidant-antioxidant imbalances can be key to the onset of degenerative diseases. A study conducted among pre-menopausal women concluded that those with a higher degree of chronic oxidative stress have shorter telomeres, which is equivalent to an extra decade of biological ageing compared to those with lower levels. There is now empiric evidence that antioxidant solutions demonstrate teloprotective properties, including alpha-carotene, beta-kryptoxanthin and especially β-carotene29. These and other supplements that help to protect telomeres and support healthy ageing, some of them by activating the telomerase enzyme, can easily be obtained from supermarkets and herbalists.
While scientists continue striving to prove that healthy eating and lifestyles make for healthier and longer lives, we also need to establish a target system to measure each individual’s cellular health over time. This would help doctors to prescribe the most suitable treatments to benefit ageing. Measuring and adjusting telomere length looks set to become a key medical tool, and a critical biomarker for early identification of disease. All of which will drive progress toward ensuring that we not only live longer, but are able to do so in the best possible conditions.